- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2006

In the Washington Shakespeare Company’s new production of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus,” director Lee Mikeska Gardner takes a stylized approach that resembles a theatrical version of equestrian dressage.

The oft-performed 1973 play has been in the headlines again of late, ever since “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe announced he will perform the role of the troubled adolescent with a pathological passion for horses — a role that famously includes full nudity — in a West End revival next March.

Miss Gardner’s high-pitched “Equus” retains many elements from the original London production. The audience is seated around the set, operating theater-style, and the actors observe the action while seated in straight wooden chairs on four sides of the stage.

The WSC staging features precise, athletic movements suggesting those of a horse, as well as sculptural wire masks resembling horses’ heads. The stomping and preening motions are ably done but overused and somewhat showy at times, distracting from the central struggle between psychiatrist and patient.

The play is at heart a psychological detective story in which Martin Dysart, a highly regarded child psychiatrist (played by an itchy, fevered Christopher Henley), tries to uncover the reasons why young Alan Strang (a volatile Jay Hardee) committed the abhorrent crime of blinding six horses with a metal spike. At the same time, Dysart grapples with his own lack of passion, wondering just when his life became small, safe and tedious.

Alan, on the other hand, operates without a safety net. When Dysart first meets him, Alan’s chosen form of communication is angrily parroting advertising jingles. He refuses to talk about the crime or even about his relationship with his controlling parents, mother Dora (Cam Magee), who filled her son’s head with rococo religious imagery and indulgent romantic fantasies, and father Frank (Bruce Alan Rauscher), a priggish and clenched patriarch.

Little by little, Alan opens up, revealing a rich and bizarre inner life centered on horses, objects of both worship and strong sexual attraction for the disturbed youth. He even has constructed an elaborate ancestral lineage for the beasts, a combination of Latin terms and gibberish. Alan’s psychosis fascinates Dysart, partly because of its grandeur and partly because it casts a harsh light on the lack of ardor in his own life.

Productions of “Equus” often highlight the contrasts between Dysart — brooding and composed — and Alan — explosive and unpredictable. Miss Gardner’s approach reveals the similarities between the two: Their edginess makes them both outcasts of a sort. Dysart just hides it better.

Mr. Henley’s ruminative, fidgety Dysart emphasizes the profound unease of the character, a man so distracted by despair that he cannot keep still. There is a paternal relationship between the good doctor and his young charge that contains a disturbing frisson of sexual attraction, a sexuality also steamily present in Dysart’s scenes with his mistress, played with decency and compassion by Adrienne Nelson.

Mr. Hardee is not a teenager, but he seems to have immediate access to the careening emotions of adolescence — highs and lows made even more startling by the addition of Alan’s psychosis, which Mr. Hardee portrays as a demonic possession that both tortures him and throws him into a state of ecstasy.

At the end of act two, Dysart leads Alan through an incantatory re-enactment of the crime, and afterward he realizes that he can heal his patient and take away Alan’s pain. But at what cost? “Equus” laments the loss of passion, which can at once spur a civilization to greatness and ignite the fires of insanity in the human mind.

***

WHAT: “Equus” by Peter Shaffer

WHERE: Washington Shakespeare Company, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Nov. 26.

TICKETS: $25 to $35

PHONE: 800/494-849 MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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